After spending a week and a half in the Maldives we were ready to take on India!More than any other country we planned to travel, India has been a country that we discussed visiting with an odd mixture of both excitement and apprehension. Over the years we have heard all sorts of horror stories of theft, terrorism, violent/sexual crime, food related illness landing people in hospitals, and so on.
Consequently, India is the first (and likely the only) country where we booked an end-to-end organized tour. The tour operator placed an emphasis on experiencing the culture by still using local forms of transport and visiting many smaller local establishments, rather than just chartering a bus and dropping clients off at the big sites (though this still occurred from time-to-time). In the end this gave the trip a more authentic feeling, and it came with a local guide who knew the lay of the land (He was awesome!), which is exactly what we needed.
Our tour covered both India and Nepal and followed the below route: Delhi (India) > Agra (India) > Orchha (India) > Varanasi (India) > Lumbini (Nepal) > Chitwan National Park (Nepal) > Kathmandu (Nepal).
Below is our experience in the first city of this trip, Delhi!
The Rundown Delhi:
- Arrival and Transport – From the Maldivies we caught an Air India flight to our starting point of Delhi, India! The flight in was relatively uneventful, but we were served a comically spicy curry dish which was our first sign that we were going to a new and foreign land. We touched down around 11 PM, made our way through the massive Delhi airport, and met up with our hotel transport. Upon exiting the airport, we were immediately faced with several thousand locals lining the entrance waiting for the arrival of loved ones – a surprise being so late at night. The ride to our hotel was two parts entertainment and one part craziness as we got our first taste of the chaotic streets of India. We shared the road with tuk-tuks, motor bikes, cattle drawn wagons, and all other manner of motor and animal powered vehicles. It was quickly apparent that the concept of lanes was more of a suggestion than a rule, as cars weaved in and out of traffic going in both directions. Car horns, rather than being reserved for emergency situations, were used for the general purpose of notifying surrounding vehicles of your location, making for a noisy journey even late at night. We also passed a number of freight trucks which quickly became one of our favorite cultural icons of the country. Unlike semi-trucks in the states, these magnificent land yachts were always highly decorated with stickers, tassels, and wacky paint jobs and came standard with horns that played a short musical tune, giving each its own unique personality. We were told that the drivers decorate their trucks since they can be away for months and even sometimes years at a time.
- A Day on Our Own (Delhi by Tuk-tuk) – We had a few days to ourselves before our tour officially started, so with the help of our hotel we hired a tuk-tuk to take us to a grocery store. Darting in and out of traffic in an open tuk-tuk was even more exciting than in a taxi! We ended up making friends with our driver, Prakash, and he offered to drive us around Delhi to some of the sites that our tour would not be visiting (okay, he just wanted more money, but he was friendly enough!). Prakash took us to a number of sites including Humayun’s tomb, The India Gate, past the India Parliament and other government buildings, and a market to do some souvenir shopping. The highlight of our time out was definitely Humayun’s Tomb which was an enormous tomb built in 1570 and provided architectural inspiration for the Taj Mahal years latter.
- Meeting our Tour Group – Later we had a brief kick off meeting with our tour group to go over some trip essentials. Our group only consisted of two Australian ladies, our guide (Sunil), and ourselves. Although, our group did pick up two more in the next city to make a whopping number of 7 of us in total traveling together. The meeting that night was on the rooftop of our hotel, and offered an excellent view of Delhi. One oddity we noticed were the groups of hawk-like, birds of prey circling certain areas of the city, something neither of us have ever seen in a major urban center. I remember hoping it was not an ominous sign of things to come!
- Jama Masjid Mosque – Our group hit the ground running and we visited a number different sites quickly as we only had one day to see Delhi. Our first stop was the Jama Masjid Mosque. While India is predominately a Hindu country (about 80% of the population), it is still about 14% Muslim and has a number of tourist attractions related to this heritage. The Jama Masjid Mosque was built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in the 17th century. Architecturally the mosque is enormous and quite stunning. We were amazed at how far back we had to stand to be able to fit the main building as well as both flanking minarets in our camera’s frame. With limited time, we did not spend long exploring the mosque’s grounds and observing the various religious ceremonies before heading into the Old Delhi Streets with our group.
- Old Delhi Streets – There is an Old Delhi and a New Delhi (news to us); Old Delhi is fascinating! With our group we explored the comically tiny streets that are Old Delhi. Buildings were often only 6 or 7 feet apart, and tiny shops hawking all kinds of wares lined both sides. Looking straight up you could literally see “layers” to the buildings as progressive stories of new construction were built atop old with little regard of maintaining a consistent look. We would never have wandered into these small streets if it wasn’t for our guided tour!
- Gurudwara Sis Ganj Sahib (Sikh Temple) – Sikhism was born in India in the late 15th century and now has about 25 million followers. In order to visit the temple we took off our shoes, covered our heads, washed our feet, and went in to see the rituals taking place. Essentially what we saw were several holy men reading from the books of wisdom as devotees knelt and whispered various prayers. After that we went next door to a building owned by the temple that offers free food to the community. We were told that all people, rich or poor, and from all faiths were allowed to come for a free meal everyday. The amount of food being prepared was truly astonishing.
- Delhi Subways Back to the Hotel – The Delhi subway entrance was situated down a tiny street in the middle of a packed market; we would have NEVER found this subway entrance on our own! The subway was PACKED with thousands of travelers, and the cars were split into male and female which was a subtle nod to the issues plaguing parts of the culture here. The cars were standing room only and quite hot, but they moved around the city quickly and efficiently.
After seeing the day’s sites, we were exhausted and ready to get back to the hotel for some much needed rest before the next morning’s train to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal!